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Money perhaps seems an unlikely subject for a beginners guide to travelling in the USA, but there are important differences between the UK and the USA that you should know about.

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The currency of the USA is of course the mighty American dollar subdivided into 100 cents. No surpise there. However, the first surprise you are likely to have when you look at US currency notes (or bills as they are referred to in the USA) is that unlike UK banknotes, all of the denominations are the same size and very nearly the same colour. My advice is to get your wallet or purse well organised to separate out the different denomination notes and take the time to keep it organised as you put money back into it. I assume for an American, the notes are easy to distinguish, however, for a Brit it really is easy to get different denominations mixed up. Its embarrassing if you have a one dollar bill mixed up with some 20's and you get asked for more money when you try to pay for something, its expensive if you mix up a 20 with a load of 1's and fail to notice. Dont be embarrassed about checking every note carefully as you pay, dont rush and make mistakes. I have seen $1's, $5's, $10's, $20's, $50's and $100 bills and they are all remarkably similar looking to me. I understand there are much higher denominations and all the same size and similar colour ! you have been warned.

On the subject of denominations, be careful when purchasing your American currency before you travel. Many places will try to give you all large denomination notes as its much easier for them. However, in small shops or diners they may well be unable/unwilling to change a very large note if you are buying something relatively inexpensive. This is a bigger problem with travellers cheques (see below).

The coins are in the following denominations

1 cent - copper coloured, known as a penny
5 cents - silver coloured, known as a nickel
10 cents - silver coloured, known as a dime (just to confuse you a dime is much smaller than a nickel !)
25 cents - silver coloured, known as a quarter
50 cents - silver coloured, I assume these must be rare as I saw my first one in 2004

Travellers cheques
Buy travellers cheques in US currency($) not in pounds. With travellers cheques in pounds you will have to hunt around for a bank to change your money. With travellers cheques in dollars you can use them just like cash in shops, retaurants and bars etc. However, beware of the denomination issue mentioned above. The place you buy your cheques from will prefer high denomination cheques, it also seems much easier for you to buy your travellers cheques in say $100 denominations. There are less to carry, less to sign when you buy them, a much easier proposition again you might think. However, unless you are paying for something fairly expensive (e.g. a meal for several people) you may get refusal to accept a $100 or even a $50 travellers cheque in a small establishment. The reason is simple, it wipes them out of change and leaves them with nothing in the till to use. If they accept a $50 note, they can potentially use that for change for a later customer or indeed to get change at another nearby shop if they need to. If they accept a $100 or a $50 travellers cheque then it has to go to the bank.

We now always get our travellers cheques in $20's and $50's (plenty of 20's). It makes for a marathon cheque signing session when you buy them, but its much easier once you are there.

Site visitor comment
Using travellers cheques is a good idea but I would recommend American Express as I have had others refused in stores and even the banks looked oddly at them. With American Express I had no issues, and no I do not work for American Express. .

Credit and Debit cards
Visa, Mastercard and American Express are usable everywhere. This can be a good way to pay for items when you are over there as it limits the amount of currency and travellers cheques you need to take. I invariable charge my accommodation to a card and often pay for meals with a card. You dont get charged a cash withdrawal charge by your card company nor do you start to pay interest immediately for such purchases. The amount is converted into sterling and appears on your next credit card bill and so you dont have to pay immediately. The rates of exchange have always seemed very reasonable to me when compared to buying currency or travellers cheques whenever I have done this.

It is a different matter if you use your card over in the states to get cash from a bank or ATM (automatic teller machine). Most cards will charge you a % (usually around 2%) of the transaction value as a cash withdrawal charge and you start to pay interest immediately. However, its a useful fallback if you need it.

Recent travellers to California have informed me that petrol stations are increasingly going over to chip and pin cards and may not accept cash or even a normal credit card. For my trip this year I've made sure I am armed with a chipped and pin'd credit card and I'll see if the above applies in Washington State where I'm travelling to.

Sales tax
The number of times I have been caught out by this surprises me. You pick up something from a shop priced at say $7.89 and carefully count out your change to get rid of some of the coins. You hand your purchase over and are then asked for $8.84 - ARGGGGHHHH ! gets me every time, I forgot about the sales tax. Flummoxed you hand over a $10 bill and end up with even more coins in your pocket. Every state sets its own sales tax and the prices on goods in shops do not include this figure however, its not optional you have to pay. The only state I have visited that didn't set a sales tax was Oregon - I'm going back there this year for part of my holiday.

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